For the second time this season, the Pittsburgh Penguins welcomed back one of their most important players from a concussion only to see him sidelined again.
Defenseman Kris Letang, who missed nearly two months after taking a shoulder to the head from Montreal’s Max Pacioretty, was again clipped in the head Wednesday at Dallas, this time by the right arm of Dallas forward Eric Nystrom midway through the first period.
Letang was visibly rattled as he left the ice and did not return to the game, which Pittsburgh won, 4-3, in a shootout. The Penguins pronounced his status day-to-day, but Thursday brought unwelcome news for an organization already dealing with a year-plus of concussion issues with captain Sidney Crosby.
“Kris Letang did have some symptoms today,” said head coach Dan Bylsma, adding that the 24-year-old blueliner would be reevaluated in Pittsburgh after the team’s road trip concludes Saturday in Colorado.
“With the significance of the hit, Kris being [down] on the ice, [the previous concussion] was the first thing I thought of,” Bylsma said. “Whether you’ve had one or a couple before, you’re concerned for the player’s health.”
Losing Letang for a significant period of time would be very bad news indeed for the Penguins, who have been on a roll with four straight wins and a 7-2-1 record in their last 10 games. With 79 points, second-best in the Eastern Conference, they currently sit in fourth place in the standings and could only go higher by closing the seven-point gap between themselves and the division- and conference-leading New York Rangers.
But there’s also only 10 points between Pittsburgh and the eighth-place Washington Capitals. And, with just over a month to go in the regular season, the possibility of another extended layoff for their best puck-moving defenseman would be a major hurdle. The club would miss Letang most on the power play point, where he’s helped them convert at a rate of 21 percent, fifth-best in the league.
“He’s been really good, but we also played a significant amount of games without Kris back there and had success with Matt Niskanen there, so Matt will slide into that spot,” Bylsma said. Defenseman Paul Martin will sub in for another of the Penguins’ point men, forward Steve Sullivan, who also suffered an undisclosed injury Wednesday at Dallas.
Nystrom received a two-minute penalty for roughing but did not face supplemental discipline for the hit.
“Usually it’s one of those things that’s a reaction – he moves, you move, and there’s just contact where there’s a sudden movement somewhere,” said Penguins forward Chris Kunitz. “That’s the unfortunate part of moving so fast; you have reflexes and things like that you can’t control.”
Letang has 12 points (6G, 6A) in 18 games since returning to the lineup on January 19, and 31 points (9G, 22A) overall in 40 games played this season. He joins Crosby, who last played on December 5, on the sidelines, as well as forward Tyler Kennedy, who began participating in practice with the team this week as the next step in his recovery from a high ankle sprain.